by George Clifford
PART 2/3 (see part 1 here)
This essay’s first part explored five factors that bode ill for TEC’s future: our legacy of small congregations in the wrong places; a growing preference for large congregations; the increasing number of spiritual but not religious individuals; biblical illiteracy; and a diminishing proclivity to make music, preferring to listen to the music of others. Denominational restructuring, regardless of its nature, does not address these issues.
Two complementary trends powerfully influence the future of TEC because those trends set the context for denominational life and ministry. People are increasingly apathetic to hierarchy and disengaging from traditional forms of organized community.
The non-hierarchical trend is easily visible in business. Corporations are flattening their organizational charts, eliminating management layers by trying to become more nimble and responsive to both employees and consumers. This non-hierarchical trend differs sharply from anti-hierarchical Protestant Reformers who rejected bishops for biblical and theological reasons. Now many of the people in our pews, who often perceive that neither they nor their congregation receive much value from the diocese or national Church, want to know why they should support diocesan and national structures with their money and efforts. Dioceses and national structures that want to thrive must now convince members of the benefit that the whole Church receives because the dioceses and national structure exist. Restructuring, by itself, cannot do that.
Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000) exhaustively documented the decline of traditional expressions of organized community in America. He summarized data that traced the decline in civic, fraternal, and religious organizations. Restructuring may helpfully reduce organizational overhead in TEC dioceses and the national Church (that the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) survey showed Episcopalians desire) but cannot reverse the larger social trend.
Although recommendations such as reducing the number of diocesan deputies to General Convention from eight to six advantageously cut overhead costs, the recommendation disadvantageously narrows the number of people personally invested in TEC’s national organization. This unintentionally exacerbates rather than ameliorates the underlying social trend of organizational disenchantment and disengagement, probably accelerating institutional decline. The critical issue is not the good of ensuring adequate and diverse representation, but the deeper existential issue of commitment to the organization. TREC should focus its restructuring proposals around function rather than organization. Why does TEC need 10 – or even 7 – days to conduct legislative proceedings? Are decisions that TEC needs to make better made representationally (the status quo) or through direct democracy, harnessing the power of the internet so potentially hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians vote instead of only a couple of thousand?
How can Episcopalians and TEC reverse the apparently inexorable downward trends? The trends are negative, notwithstanding a recent scattering of positive signs, signs for which we should give thanks without thinking our problems solved. TEC can take four positive steps toward a more vibrant, positive future, two discussed here, and two in the third and final installment of this post.
(1) We need to focus our attention, efforts, and resources on congregations located in places where numerical growth is happening or seems reasonably probable. TREC, in its December 2013 letter to the Church, suggested that spiritually vibrant and mission focused congregations comprise perhaps only 30% of all TEC congregations. Arguably, diocesan and national staffs can make the greatest progress toward realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth by concentrating their efforts on these congregations. Seminaries, in addition to the spiritual formation, academic preparation, and practical equipping of students for ordained ministry, should research and teach the sociological, psychological, and organizational dynamics conducive to growing spiritual alive missional communities.
Concurrently, we need to make difficult decisions about the resources – money, time, and energy – that we are willing to expend on small congregations and on congregations with poor prospects for growth. Included in the substantial but generally uncalculated and therefore ignored costs that these thousands of congregations impose on TEC are the costs of regular episcopal visits, programmatic and monetary support, assistance with clergy transitions, and educating and ordaining thousands of priests and deacons. Resources used on these efforts entail opportunity costs, e.g., a bishop visiting a small congregation has not done something else. Congregants who, if the small congregation did not exist, would have joined a thriving congregation also represent an opportunity cost, depriving the larger congregation of the benefit of their presence and gifts.
The choice about support for small congregations, although emotionally charged, is not the same choice that the shepherd faced when one sheep wandered off from the other 99 (Mt 18:10-14). In some remote areas, the TEC congregation may be the only Christian congregation and thus merit ongoing support. In other places, however, people can easily drive a few more miles to reach another TEC congregation. Elsewhere, the TEC congregation might unite with an Evangelical Lutheran congregation, find creative ways to share resources with other religious congregations or non-profits, etc. The choice is not whether to serve the one (i.e., those Episcopalians in small congregations) but how best to serve them. An unexamined, blind commitment to all congregations, regardless of size or prospects, characterizes a poor steward. We have an obligation to God and to one another to use our time and resources as effectively and efficiently for God’s purposes as possible. Buildings and other resources should be means to an end, not our raison d’être.
The ordination process, canonically standardized, has considerable variation in practice. Dioceses utilize the General Ordination Exams in a wide range of ways. Some of our seminaries are struggling financially, exploring new ways to be relevant, or developing online degree programs. Some dioceses are establishing alternatives to residential seminary programs for preparing new priests. Leaders in theses dioceses regard seminary degrees as unaffordable for clergy whom the diocese hopes will serve congregations unable to afford a full-time stipendiary priest. Leaders in these dioceses also recognize that both increasing numbers of postulants for holy orders have an employed partner unwilling to relocate for three years and ordinands, after graduating from seminary, may receive a call to a different geographic area. Some dioceses also have unique issues, e.g., Hawaii has had difficulty retaining mainland clergy for more than a couple of years because emergent family obligations make relocating to the mainland desirable for many.
How should TEC form and educate new clergy? Which small congregations merit our continued support? Which ones should we target for closure, consolidation, or another form of realignment? These questions are like the proverbial 800-pound gorillas in our midst that we are desperately trying to ignoring, but that obstinately refuse to disappear. Not seeking honest answers to these tough questions can only accelerate TEC’s demise.
(2) We need to reexamine our ecclesiology. Why are bishops important? I know the answer in the Book of Common Prayer, but that answer is insufficient. What do we really want – need – bishops to do? If the answer is to be a visible sign of the Church’s unity, then one bishop might be best, representing an unmistakable unity. If the answer is to teach the faith, then we need sufficient bishops to teach regular assemblies of the faithful. If the answer is to administer confirmation, then we need the number of bishops required to administer confirmation annually in large parishes and for regional gatherings of small congregations. None of these answers presumes the geographically contiguous dioceses defined by the borders of political jurisdictions. Are there other important tasks for bishops to perform or roles for them to fill? Once clear on what we expect bishops to do, then determining the number of bishops required becomes relatively easy.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.